Chelsea Porterfield sang the ABCs softly as she rocked her 2 year old to sleep. In the quiet solitude of her son’s bedroom, her mind drifted and fixated on her husband’s .45 caliber pistol.
In November 2018, the sergeant first class thought about suicide for the first time.
Since she had accepted an assignment to serve as a platoon sergeant in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), Chelsea struggled to strike a balance of time for duty and family.
“I was good enough at work,” she said. “I wasn't good enough at home. I was failing somewhere. … Nothing was good enough.”
She tried to envision how her life would be different if she ended her life.
Porterfield paused and cast the thoughts aside, kissing her son as he slept peacefully and pulled the covers over him. She wiped her tears and tried to go to bed.
But the ideas crept back into her mind again the following evening. At 3 a.m. on Nov. 30, no longer able to rest, she drove from her house in Alexandria, Virginia, out into the cool fall air toward Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.
When she arrived at her office, dread overwhelmed her as she plunked into her desk staring at the black computer screen.
She wanted to kill herself and the idea would not go away.
“It scared me. I knew I wanted to die,” Porterfield said. “But I didn’t know what I was going to be capable of doing.”
The tears came uncontrollably.
Her coworker, an older NCO, asked if she needed help. Porterfield waved him away, indicating that she was OK.
Embarrassed that she had been seen in such a state, she rushed to her car and drove to Joint Base Myer’s Andrew Rader Health Clinic only to learn it had closed for the day.
She took a drag from a cigarette as she sat inside her car. The nearby DC rush hour traffic had begun to simmer as she began the 20-mile drive south from Joint Base Myer to Fort Belvoir.
After checking into Belvoir’s inpatient behavioral health center an hour later, Porterfield sat in the waiting room next to two Marines and another Soldier waiting to be treated. Chelsea tried to suppress the tears but she could no longer contain them. Doctors would later tell her that she had suffered a panic attack.
“I thought I might kill myself today,” Porterfield whispered. One of the Marines, an older gunnery sergeant, turned toward her.
“Well,” he said to her, “it happens to the best of us.”
According to the most recent Defense Department study, suicide claimed the lives of 305 soldiers or 30.9 suicides per 100,000 in 2018, up from 29.7 in 2017.
Curbing rising suicide numbers continues to be one of the Army’s top priorities. Last year the service launched a yearlong pilot program to assist suicide prevention at three installations, examining factors that lead to suicides. In July 2019 the National Guard also established the Suicide Prevention and Readiness Initiative to identify risk factors that lead to suicide. The Guard, which has the Army’s highest suicide rates, announced that it would renew all 11 of its pilot programs implemented last year, designed to identify and evaluate the best suicide prevention methods.
Soldiers with suicidal thoughts can turn to behavioral treatment facilities at any Army post. They can also contact their first sergeant, supervisor or unit chaplain, and even get help anonymously by calling the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.
The burden of duty
It has been more than two years since Porterfield left the mental health treatment facility at Fort Belvoir.
In her crisp, spotless dress blues, Chelsea hits her cadence hard during ceremonial walks, the way she had painstakingly rehearsed dozens of times.
Visitors lock on her during each ceremonial changing of the guard, as she marches along Arlington National Cemetery’s solemn grounds. And when they see her, they see more than a solitary soldier. They see a representative of the U.S. armed forces.
In September 2019, Porterfield became the first woman to lead a marching element onto Arlington, and in the spring became the 38th Sergeant of the Guard.
Porterfield knows the pressure of representing her service weighs heavily upon her with each turn of her heel and each unlocking of her M-14 rifle. As a member of The Old Guard, she must be at her sharpest at all times.
Among Arlington’s fallen lie the soldiers who gave more than the average troops. Soldiers with Purple Hearts, Silver Stars and meritorious service medals. Medal of Honor recipients.
And for 83 years, The Old Guard has watched over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
She has virtually grown up in the Army. Since her high school graduation, she has never known anything else but military life.
She had spent most of her 20s overseas or on a deployment. Then-Pvt. Chelsea Mason had barely settled into serving at an Army post in Germany when she learned she would be deploying to Iraq for the first time. She later traveled with a unit that helped rebuild Iraq on her second deployment.
“I didn't know how to be me,” she said. “I had spent all of my youth in Iraq. Part of me is still always going to be in Iraq.
“I watched Iraq burn and I watched it get built back up. There's no ambiguity there … You know, you wear a uniform every day, all day, every day. You don't have to worry about looking cute or being a woman, or wearing your hair a certain way or putting makeup on or dressing up.”
She spent two years as a drill sergeant before working around the clock on police investigations at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. The workload became so burdensome, some days she’d sleep in her office so she would not have to beat the Oahu rush-hour traffic.
Early in her career, she felt the pressure to not only meet the same standards as her male counterparts; she wanted to exceed them.
To see Porterfield now, it would be difficult to understand why she considered suicide. She holds a respected leadership position in one of the Army’s most renowned infantry units. And younger Soldiers turn to her for counsel and advice.
But those who knew her understood the immense burden she placed on herself. No longer is she the carefree girl who grew up playing on the Texas prairie. The Army had changed her in ways she had not imagined. Years of being the only female in military police units had taken its toll.
And when she returned to the family home she shared with her husband of six years in Alexandria, the stress didn’t subside. Her husband, a fellow military police Soldier, didn’t like living in the D.C. metro region -- the heavy traffic, and lines of cars that could make a 5-mile drive a 40-minute slog.
She spent eight months toiling at work trying to earn the respect of her peers by posting high marks on her ceremonial tests. By November of that 2018, unknown to her coworkers her problems at home had reached a boiling point.
Her husband asked her to apply for another assignment so the family could leave D.C. During that same month, Porterfield began brainstorming on the cleanest method to take her own life.
“I could sense that she wasn’t at peace,” Capt. Tessa Knight said of Porterfield on a fall afternoon in 2019. “I didn’t know how to do anything about it.”
When Knight, a staff officer in The Old Guard learned that her friend, Chelsea, had considered suicide and had been admitted for treatment, it rattled her. Four months passed since the pair had worked together -- Knight as the platoon leader and Porterfield as her platoon sergeant. But the two remained in touch through messages on Facebook, or occasionally stopping by her office at Joint Base Myer.
Knight and Porterfield instantly clicked after meeting in January 2018. Knight, then a first lieutenant, joined The Old Guard three years removed from her graduation from the U.S. Military Academy. Porterfield, a seasoned NCO, had applied for the position after serving as an instructor at the Army’s Military Police School in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
On the surface they had many similarities. Both women possessed an intense work ethic, holding themselves to sometimes impossibly high standards. Both had light blond hair and the way they joked with each other could easily be mistaken for sisters or lifelong friends, Knight said.
In other aspects they could not have been more different.
Porterfield, in her mid ‘30s, already had 16 years in the Army under her belt. Porterfield had already been on four deployments and spent three years molding soldiers as a drill instructor. She also had a family.
Knight, then a 25-year-old single woman and a devout Christian, leaned on her faith to weather difficult circumstances. Instead of turning to a higher power while in distress, Porterfield relied on herself.
Despite their differences, they possessed a mutual respect for one another, and had a similar leadership style and both pushed for giving soldiers cross training opportunities such as shadowing other soldiers in other units.
“We came from different backgrounds but I think we spoke the same language,” Knight said. “We have the same drive.”
Each soldier joining The Old Guard must complete ceremonial certification. Soldiers endure a rigorous process where they must learn the finer points of drill and ceremony.
“There is a lot of pressure, either imposed or self-imposed,” Porterfield said. “You don’t want to be the one that consistently fails.”
By completing ceremonial training, members of The Old Guard earn their distinguished “buff strap,” an honorary Regimental Distinctive Insignia made from rawhide, woven into the black shoulder strap of their knapsacks, a tradition since 1792. This distinguished the 3rd Infantry from other units in the Army.
Porterfield decided she wanted to complete the Regimental Sword and Saber certification in less than three months. In the competitive environment of The Old Guard, NCOs must often jostle against each other for coveted positions.
“She took that burden on herself to be like, ‘I must do these things to prove myself somehow in this regiment,’” Knight said. “I'm not sure most people would do that.”
Porterfield hid her depression while masking her feelings behind a smile. She’d be the first soldier to report for duty, arriving before the sun rose. And she often would stay late to mentor other Soldiers, instead of spending time with her infant son. Knight would come to the office to find Porterfield at her desk already at work. Porterfield would fret over how leadership looked upon her.
She understood the burden Old Guard soldiers must weather in a priority assignment.
Porterfield felt the weight of taking this duty, feeling alone, and didn’t want to let her mentors down, she said.
Nine months later Knight assumed a new role as a member of the military police staff of The Old Guard.
Knight returned to her home state of New York to visit family for the holidays in December 2018. On Dec. 23, she received a call from her old supervisor and mentor, Maj. Chris Nogle, who had been stationed in Hawaii.
Two months before, Nogle had visited Knight during a training session and the two had lunch in Washington. Knight noticed Nogle’s listless expression and became concerned.
That winter morning, he texted her what he thought was a funny picture of someone who resembled Knight. He wished her a Merry Christmas and asked how Knight’s family was doing. She told him her family was doing well and Knight wished him the same.
Later that day, the major died by suicide.
When Knight heard the news from a fellow soldier in her old unit, she sat shocked. “What more could I have done?” Knight asked herself.
She tried to compose herself for what would be a bittersweet holiday.
Knight texted Porterfield “Merry Christmas” and had not heard back. Three days later, Knight’s first sergeant told her that her Chelsea had been contemplating suicide and had checked into the behavioral health clinic at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital.
Porterfield spent three weeks in the inpatient center and had to recite what had happened in November. She also recalled her internal battles during deployments and her recent problems at home. Doctors continually monitored her mental state and she had to be kept away from sharp objects. “I wondered ‘how did I get here?” Porterfield said. “I couldn’t even shave my legs without being supervised.”
Porterfield followed that treatment with a 12-week outpatient program where she learned to cope with her internal struggle.
A psychiatrist later told her that her feelings likely came from a combination of ailments: depression, adjustment disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. He added that she had repressed feelings that finally manifested that November. She hadn’t dealt with the trauma she experienced from years of going to war.
Porterfield has forgotten most of her first tour in Iraq. But treatment helped her deal with the memory loss. She remembers entering Iraqi villages during raids. She recalls the endless night patrols across the desert.
When she dealt with adversity or stress, she admittedly buried any trauma within.
“It was like running a marathon without water,” Porterfield said.
Her husband removed all firearms from the family’s house. Porterfield promised to alert him or her commander if her harmful feelings resurfaced.
Porterfield told Knight what had happened in November. They talked about her suicidal feelings and the pressures she felt at home. Knight assured her friend that she could turn to her.
“I just was able to express to her what I hadn't been able to express to my mentor, which is like you're alive and you're cared for, and I'm here, and I will always be here if you need me,” Knight said.
Rising from despair
The day after the clinic discharged her from inpatient care, Porterfield called a meeting with her platoon. For the first time in her career, she decided to open up about her struggles to her soldiers. She told them that she had been hurting for a long time and did not completely understand why. She said she sought treatment, and that they could still talk to her the same way as before.
“I didn’t want to walk on eggshells,” she said. “I didn’t want the atmosphere to be thick -- I didn’t want any of that.”
Porterfield credited her unit for treating her with the same respect. When they had questions about her struggles, she willingly answered. To her surprise, other Soldiers shared that family members and friends had similar thoughts to harm themselves and asked where to seek help. The conversation set the foundation for her transition back to work three months later.
Her therapy sessions taught her about self-awareness; how to identify feelings that could lead to suicidal thoughts. She also received training on cognitive behavioral therapy and how to cope with harmful feelings.
Today Porterfield remains open about her bout with suicide. She has become a spokesperson for a veteran suicide survivor group, letting other veterans know there are places to seek help. Veterans battling suicide can contact the Veterans Crisis Line, available 24/7, by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1; texting to 838255, or by chatting online.
“The bravest thing I ever did,” Porterfield would later say, “was choosing to live when I wanted to die.”
Once Porterfield completes sentinel training, she will be the sixth female to earn the Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Identification Badge. Her husband retired last November after 20 years in the Army.
In her hardest days that fall and winter, she remembered how her platoon and her commanders at The Old Guard accepted her without malice or judgement.
“I was worried about being treated differently or judged by my command team and my Soldiers,” Porterfield said. “Luckily, neither of that happened.”
Porterfield’s greatest weapon against suicide lies at home.
Her son, now nearly 4 years old, already has an expansive vocabulary for his age and enjoys running around outdoors like his mother did as a child. She shudders when she thinks that she could have ever left him.
Porterfield looks at her son, and his curly blond locks, whenever she needs to remind herself why she must go on. And she has finally found even ground between duty and family, assuring that she spends time with her son and her husband.
“He's just really, really smart,” Porterfield said of her son. “What did he say? Yesterday, I was FaceTiming with him. He's like, ‘Mommy, do you have balance?’
“I was like, ‘yes, I do have balance.’”